Life Tech International Women’s Day: Female virtual assistants a dominant force

International Women’s Day: Female virtual assistants a dominant force

Microsoft's virtual assistant Cortana
Microsoft has a face for its virtual assistant, Cortana, which is based on a character in its game Halo. Photo: Microsoft news
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The push towards gender parity is a central theme behind International Women’s Day, but in the back pockets of millions and on desktops across the world, other females are already driving a quiet revolution that appears unstoppable.

Virtual assistants (VA) such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana have grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade, and are becoming more intelligent, more creative and ultimately more human.

They are also predominantly female-voiced, despite options to customise a VA to a user’s preferences, and it is a trend that extends to satellite navigation software and other digital assistants.

Adelaide technology consultant Richard Pascoe said the dominance of female voices on smartphones and satellite navigation devices was based on their success.

“Studies are showing that when you direct people, if that person is female, you increase the chances of success.

“You get that option to change them to male voices, but it’s a novelty thing and most people go back to female voices.

“I can’t think of the last time I heard a male voice.”

Experts and academics have pointed to everything from the detached and ultimately murderous male voice of HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as being a reason why female voices are more popular, to radio advertising studies concluding female voices are more likely to trigger an emotional response.

“I think the female voice is a lot kinder and gentler to get you to do something,” Mr Pascoe said.

“It’s that emotional connection we all have.”

Females ‘suggest’ and males ‘instruct’

University of Adelaide Department of Media lecturer Dr Kim Barbour said it could also have something to do with the tonal qualities of voices.

“If we’re used to men being an authority voice, then having a male voice telling us what to do becomes an instruction, rather than a suggestion, based simply on their voice,” she said.

“Potentially, we don’t want someone telling us what to do.”

She also pointed to secretary roles, particularly in the 20th century, “as tending to be women”, along with carer roles.

“And if you’re designing a virtual assistant to look after you, take care of you, get you to places on time and find the right shops, that assistant is likely to be feminised,” Dr Barbour said.

She said she hoped such attitudes changed as society shifted its expectations of people and gender.

“We’re expecting more from both men and women, in terms of what they can contribute in different roles, and as we open those roles, not just in a biological perspective, perhaps we will see a wider range of helpers.”

University of SA Adjunct Associate Professor Geraldine Bloustien, an expert in anthropology and sociology, said there was a lot of assumptions that could be made about male voices and authority, but she said female dominance of VAs could also be a question of accent.

She pointed out that she often found it easier to understand a woman’s accent while travelling overseas.

“The [VA] voices they use, obviously they’re all electronically arranged and produced; the voice seems to articulate more carefully when it’s a woman,” Associate Professor Bloustien said.

“I can’t speak with any authority on this. It’s just something I’ve noticed.”

Digital Arcade
Virtual assistants are expected to feature in evolving virtual reality software. Photo: ABC

Virtual assistants to break new ground

With a technological revolution expected to be just around the corner with the arrival of virtual reality, Mr Pascoe said VAs would continue to appear in more and more areas of our lives.

He expected some “ground-breaking” VAs to arrive over the next five years.

“We really are on the cusp of all this. We’re not going to know who we’re talking to anymore.

“People still don’t want to use Siri, and I say, ask her what the weather is, ask her to remind you to buy milk when you leave work, and as soon as you walk out the door, it will remind you, because it knows where you are.

“And on the Windows side, you’re going to have Cortana saying, ‘I’ve got a meeting with Richard Pascoe tomorrow’, and it will go on and give you a complete biography of me.

“And it’s likely to be a female doing it.”